Al Harron over at The Blog that Time Forgot sums up the feelings that most of us Robert E. Howard fans must have had while watching either of the two trailers for the upcoming film based on his most famous character, Conan. Which is to say: none.
I will not belabor the points Taranaich makes on his blog. He’s a more strident defender of Howard and his creations than I could ever claim to be, and he strikes me as better read in the pulp era of SF and fantasy than I plan to be. But he’s so, so right that I have to reiterate some of what he’s said here.
When I first saw the trailer for John Woo’s Red Cliff, I practically lost my pants, my personal climax coming around the half-way point when we see a brief shot of Guan Yu standing in front a wall of shields, his signature guan dao held behind his back, as he is depicted in those figures that every Chinese restaurant in America has as a decoration, his impressive beard blowing in the wind. To a fan of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or the Dynasty Warriors video games for that matter, that’s a powerful image, and the trailer is filled with them. Zhuge Liang fanning himself stoically; Sun Quan’s face illuminated by the light reflected off his blade; flaming arrows shot en masse in the night sky; I know these events from the novel. I know that John Woo is promising a movie pleasing to my sensibilities, both as a fan of historical films and as a lover of one of China’s best known heroic narratives.
I tried to maintain an optimistic outlook for this new Conan film. I actually liked John Millius’ Conan the Barbarian, but it is not an adaptation of Howard, which the producers of this new film claimed they would make. The announcement that a relatively talented hack (Marcus Nispel) would direct did much to defeat those efforts. I tuned out when Jason Momoa was cast as Conan. Old modeling pictures from his “Baywatch” days saw to that.
|I'm getting "gigantic mirth" from this one.|
Why does Conan pirouette? Who are these characters? Is this supposed to be Cimmeria? Stygia? Xuthal? Zamoria? Who’s the chick with big sword? What’s with Rose McGowan’s hair? And here’s the big one: why does this look so much like every other sword-and-sorcery made in the past ten years?
As a fan of Howard’s stories, I can see a lot that looks not quite right. But more importantly, as a fan of fantasy movies, I can see nothing particularly compelling in either the teaser or longer official trailer. The market for these movies has reached full saturation, and the only reason to watch this movie would be to see Howard’s Conan on screen.
But, as a fan of Howard, I see a lot that looks not quite right. I see very little that looks like it came from Howard’s stories. See the problem?
The film makers are in a difficult position here, more so, I think, than Peter Jackson or John Woo or even M. Night Shyamalan were when they made adaptations of pre-existing narratives. The richness of Howard’s stories is not in the bloody violence or the copious naked flesh. My favorite Conan stories (“The Scarlet Citadel,” “The Tower of the Elephant,” “Red Nails”) combine the raw, uninhibited energy of Howard’s prose with melancholy elements of cosmic horror. Howard fans very often like his work because of what’s under the surface, hiding in between the lines. People who don’t know Howard, or only know his characters second-hand, think that Conan is some sort of moronic Aryan ubermensch who runs around in furry underwear killing people who get in his way. The latter notion lends itself well to the current wave of juvenile summer fantasy flicks, and it looks like that’s what Marcus Nispel set out to make.
Taranaich explains that as a fan of Howard, there’s little in either trailer, outside a bowdlerized line from “Queen of the Black Coast” (“I live. I love. I slay; and am content”) that would tip a Conan fan off to the fact that this is a Conan movie. It’s not made for us or even with us in mind. But who will actually want to see it?
A few people have asked me why Howard’s fans always seem so defensive, so protective of reputation and legacy. The obvious answer is that we think he’s besieged by false assumptions, bad adaptations, and a general misunderstanding of why he’s so popular even now, decades after the first publications of his work. In short: because of movies like this.
But this is the problem with film adaptations in general. Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, while a fun movie in its own right, hardly gets to what makes the Arthur Conan Doyle stories compelling. While I really like Jackson’s LotR trilogy, it’s a poor substitute for actually reading Tolkien. But at least it seemed as though they tried, and at least some of the essence was captured in those adaptations.
So, “the book is better.” Remember that tired, tired phrase. Please.